Lanark bids to bring 1910 airshow medals home

Early flyer Drexel
Early flyer Drexel

If it hadn’t been for the small matter of William Wallace sparking off the Scottish Wars of Independence in Lanark in 1297, the town’s single biggest historical event would have been the airshow it hosted in 1910.

It was certainly the first ever such gathering held in Scotland and, depending on which aviation historian you believe, either the second or third in the whole United Kingdom.

When the show’s centenary came around seven years ago, the striking aircraft statue now towering over the entrance to Lanark Loch was created as a permanent reminder of that glorious week in August 1910 when the eyes of the world were on Lanark and over 300,000 people flocked to the town’s racecourse to watch the feats of the earliest aviators.

That statue apart – and a smaller memorial stone at the Racecourse itself – very little remains in Lanark today to remind us of the part the Royal Burgh played in world aviation history.

To use a modern phrase, there really wasn’t much ‘‘legacy’’ from the show; even the special railway station built near the racecourse to take the hoardes of spectators to and from the event eventually closed in 1965 after its post-show role serving generations of racegoers and squaddies at nearby Winston Barracks.

A grand scheme by the Town Council to cash in on the show’s temporary fame by giving Lanark long-term jobs through the construction of a great aircraft manufacturing factory came to nothing.

However, the Royal Burgh of Lanark Museum has, for many years, tried to keep proud memories of the airshow alive with various exhibitions and events.

Now it is seeking the help of Lanarkians in bringing two important artefacts back to Lanark 107 years after they left the town after the airshow.

They are two gold medals won by the man generally recognised as the ‘‘star’’ of Lanark Airshow, John Alexander Drexel, the fifth licensed pilot ever in his homeland of the USA and only the tenth in Britain.

They were awarded for his feat of breaking the world height record at Lanark during that historic week, his fragile Bleriot XI machine struggling up to just a shade under 7000 feet, about a quarter the altitude transatlantic airliners fly at today but a world-beating achievement at the time.

One of the medals was presented by the Lanark Airshow committee, the other by the Royal Aero Club of Britain.

Drexel went on to be one of the very few Lanark show airmen to survive into old age, dying in 1958 aged 67. He not only lived through the generally deadly early years of aviation but also World War One in which he became a combat ‘‘ace’’ with a US/French squadron.

His is hardly a classic rags-to-riches story given that his grandfather was a founder partner in one of the great American banks; Drexel spent his latter years adding to the vast family fortune in Wall Street, his youthful, wild pioneer flying days left far behind him.

Now his two Lanark medals are up for sale and Lanark Museum is in the bidding for them; half the undisclosed asking price has already been raised through a grant and more cash has come from the Friends of the Museum’s own fundraising activities.

Now the Friends are seeking Lanarkians’ help in raising the remaining few hundred pounds to clinch the deal and bring the medals ‘‘home’’.

Donations can be made via: Friends of Lanark Museum, c/o 8 Westport, Lanark.